On this day in 1963, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation from the Oval Office proposing that Congress begin the process of drafting a civil rights act. Many view August 5, 1963, the date of the March on Washington, as the most significant date in the history of civil rights, but because of Kennedy’s speech and because of the other events of that day, June 11, 1963 deserves consideration as the day that launched a revolution in civil rights.
The event that sparked Kennedy’s speech occurred in Alabama earlier in the day. At the University of Alabama, Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door attempting to block the entrance of two black students. For many white Americans in 1963, the issue of segregation was largely a regional political issue. In the speech he gave from the Oval Office, Kennedy made civil rights a national issue. In addition, he addressed not just as a political issue but a moral one.
The year 1963 was the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, and in his speech, Kennedy linked the plight of African-Americans with the character and the unity of the entire nation:
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
More than just reporting what was happening in Alabama, Kennedy was inviting all Americans to do something for their country by playing a positive role in the sweeping change. He was asking Americans to support the kind of actions that would allow the United States to fulfill its promise to all it citizens:
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them. The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives.
We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality . . . .
The old code of equity law under which we live commands for every wrong a remedy, but in too many communities, in too many parts of the country, wrongs are inflicted on Negro citizens and there are no remedies at law. Unless the Congress acts, their only remedy is the street.
I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public — hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments. This seems to me to be an elementary right. Its denial is an arbitrary indignity that no American in 1963 should have to endure, but many do. (1)
Kennedy’s speech with its moral and forceful tone set the stage for the March on Washington two month later, where Martin Luther King would give his great “I Have a Dream” speech. In the history books, King’s speech has largely overshadowed Kennedy’s June speech. However, without Kennedy’s push for and endorsement of legislative action, the Civil Rights Act might not have become a reality.
After Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson made Kennedy’s dream a reality, signing the bill into law on July 2, 1964 (2).
Today’s Challenge: You Say You Want a Revolution
What are the issues today that need reform or change? What are the specific problems with the status quo, and how might specific revolutionary changes improve the situation for everyone? Brainstorm some issues that you think might be ripe for reform. Select one, and identify what the problems are with the status quo, and present possible solutions that might bring about positive change. Write the text of a brief speech presenting the issue, the problems, and your solution. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?” -George Bernard Shaw
1-Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address (complete text)
2-Joseph, Peniel E.. “Kennedy’s Finest Moment.” New York Times 10 June 2013.